By MALUM NALU
THE fall of Mt Hagen from a once-beautiful and safe place to an ugly and dangerous place epitomises what has happened in this country over the last 42 years.
The third city of Papua New Guinea (which looks more like a rundown town to me) is full of rubbish, infested with people high on marijuana or drunk on homebrew who invariably believe in sanguma, full of potholes befitting a backwater area, and doesn’t have a good water supply system.
You walk around at your own risk as it’s a place where even angels fear to tread.
It was in Mt Hagen, back in Feb 2013, that the now-infamous case of Kepari Leniata took place.
When a young boy died in Warakum settlement in Mt Hagen, the young men assumed that it was Leniata who had caused his death.
People believed the gossip that said that she was a sanguma.
They did not try to actually understand what was going on, but just acted.
They stripped her naked, tortured her with a branding iron, bonded and set her on fire on Feb 6, 2013.
The crowd snapped pictures of her torture and killing on their camera phones, proudly sharing it over social media.
There was widespread outrage throughout PNG and the world after the murder of Leniata.
Amidst all the gloom, doom and despair in Mt Hagen, there is a silver lining to the dark cloud.
Over the Independence weekend, I was up in Mt Hagen, at the invitation of a good friend, David Raim, to attend his daughter’s wedding at Rondon Ridge.
David drives me around Mt Hagen, and to as far as the Wahgi Valley, where I am able to see how the church, and in particular the Seventh Day Adventist Church, is fighting against these evils.
At Madan, in the Wahgi, we join in with the local Kora SDA congregation for their Sabbath which coincided with Independence celebrations.
David’s father, Raim Pongla, is a respected Western Highlands business, community and church leader.
Now aged 83, and an SDA Church elder, he tells me that government systems were more effective under the Australian administration.
He was 41 at the time of Independence on Sept 16, 1975.
Pongla compares the good road conditions before Independence to the current treacherous conditions from the valley all the way into Mt Hagen.
He says the current law-and-order problem in Western Highlands and Jiwaka is also a major concern.
“Things worked very well under the Australian administration,” Pongla says.
“It was very good.
“Now, in Western Highlands, the roads and everything else are falling apart.
“When the white men were here, the roads were very good, and I could drive from the Wahgi Valley into Mt Hagen to drop off my children at school in a very short time.
“You can’t do this nowadays.
“This is something that worries me a lot about our government.”
Pongla says the rule of law was very effective in the past as compared to today.
“There are so many rascals nowadays,” he says.
“Stealing is affecting everyone.
“This is something that frightens us.”
Pongla says government and church can work together in addressing various issues.
“An example is the SDA Church regularly cleaning up Mt Hagen City,” he says.
“We pick up all the rubbish, using our own vehicles and other materials, every quarter.
“SDA Church members also plan to do this in Jiwaka, Enga, Southern Highlands and Hela.
“We have already cleaned up Mt Hagen.
“The Government should work together with the church in ensuring that the place is clean all the time.”
Pongla wants the new government to work harder to address the various issues now confronting society
“Our church will also continue to work hard,” he says.
David Wagani, an elder of the Kora congregation, tells me the church is doing its best to dissuade young people from the major problems of homebrew and marijuana.
He says a regular clean-up of Mt Hagen by SDA Church members has also proven to be very successful.
Wagani, from Kompiam-Ambum in Enga but who has a block at Madan and has settled there, says the problem of homebrew and marijuana is widespread in Western Highlands and Jiwaka.
“This is a major problem in the community,” he says.
“We have so many young people smoking marijuana and drinking firewater (homebrew).
“The church has helped to turn away many young people from these bad habits.
“They have changed their lives and continue to stay away from these bad habits within the confines of the church.
“This is not because of government but because of the church.
“It is good to see many of these young people within the church today.”
Wagani, who has lived at Madan since 1979, says he has watched a once-safe community go to the dogs because of the consumption of marijuana and homebrew.
The SDA Church has taken it upon itself to clean up Mt Hagen with government and the newly-established city authority doing nothing.
Samuel Mollen, General-Secretary of Western Highlands Union of SDA Churches, says this clean-up will spread throughout the Highlands and eventually the rest of the country.
The work of the SDA Church in cleaning up Mt Hagen has attracted nationwide admiration and put to shame the responsible authorities.
“It comes with a World Church theme called Total Membership Involvement,” Mollen tells me at Rondon Ridge after the wedding.
“Involvement in any community service activities right across the country, and right across the world.”
He says Western Highlands Mission covers Western Highlands, Jiwaka, Enga, Southern Highlands, Hela, West Sepik and Western.
“The headquarters (of Western Highlands Mission) is in Mt Hagen, so we have organised cleanathons right across the major cities and towns in these seven provinces,” Mollen says.
“We did the clean-up in Mt Hagen in April and July.
“When we cleaned the town, we used our own resources, and at the same time set up programmes for other centres like Wabag, Mendi, Tari and Jiwaka.
“We have about 80,000 members in these five Highlands provinces.
“We realised (after cleaning Mt Hagen) that the people’s mindset had changed, and for weeks after that, they walked the streets without throwing any rubbish because they saw that the place was very clean.
“Later, unfortunately, the rubbish grew up again.
“We are thinking of doing another major cleanathon in October.”
Mollen says marijuana and homebrew consumption is a major problem throughout the country.
“The church usually organises big crusades in towns and villages, where we talk on health issues concerning young people, including marijuana and other things that affect our young generation,” he says.
“If all of us, including Government, do not do anything to address this, we will not have good leaders in future: Expect chaos and trouble in future.
“Our church is conducting big evangelistic meetings where we emphasise the negative impact of marijuana and other substances.
“Health and Gospel come together in the SDA Church.”
I leave Mt Hagen very impressed at the work of the SDA Church.
By MALUM NALU